Reading Assignment:

Matthew 5:33-37; 23:16-22

Did you understand what you read?

  1. Can this quotation be found in the Old Testament?
  2. What is wrong with the quotation?
  3. Why should we not swear by something?
  4. Why is anything more than "yes" or "no" from Satan?


Jesus quotes the following statement, "Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord." Once more, this quotation is not found in the Old Testament. Some of the ideas carried in this quotation are found in the Old Law, but there is a subtle flaw in the statement. The statement affirms that oaths made to God are binding, as taught in Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:23 and Ecclesiastes 5:4-5, but it implies that some oaths are not binding.

Oaths, swearing, and vows are all words used to indicate a promise made to someone which are bound by something else. Oaths are bound with various things, such as material things, a person's reputation, a person's religion, a person's life, or anything else that the person accepting the oath would receive. Giving a newly purchased car as collateral for a loan to purchase the car is a form of an oath. You are promising to repay the debt and if you don't the person giving the loan can take possession of your car. Oaths and swearing, in this case, do not refer to cursing or foul language, though these words do carry these additional meanings in today's English language. Using foul language or cursing is wrong (Exodus 20:7, Leviticus 19:12, James 3:10), but Matthew 5:33-37 is not the passage to use to prove cursing is wrong.

The Old Law teaches that all promises are binding (Number 30:1-16, Psalms 15:4, Ecclesiastes 5:4-6). About the only exception is for women who are not held responsible for committing the family. In these cases, the woman's father or husband can cancel the vow, if he does so immediately upon hearing the vow. Look at Numbers 30:2 again. The law doesn't say that only oaths made to God are binding. All oaths, to the Lord or not, are binding. The Old Law also instructs the Israelites to deal honestly with each other (Leviticus 19:11, Proverbs 12:22, Zechariah 8:16-17). Notice that the law does not require an oath. If an oath is used, one must abide by the terms of the oath. Whether or not an Israelite made a formal vow, he was expected to keep his word.

In contrast, the Jews of Jesus' time believed that only certain kinds of oaths were binding. In Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus states that the Jews believed that swearing by the temple, the altar, or God's throne was not binding, but swearing by the temple's treasury or a sacrifice on the altar was binding. According to the Mishna (a Jewish commentary on the Law), "Oaths may only be taken about what can be defined according to size, weight, or number." "If a claim concerns these, no oath is imposed: bondsmen, written documents, immovable property, and the property of the Temple." The Mishna also states that claims made with the phrase 'I adjure you,' 'I command you,' or 'I bind you' are binding, but a claim made with the phrase 'By heaven and earth' are not binding. Is it any wonder that few Gentiles would trust a Jew?

Jesus states in Matthew 5, not to use oaths to bind your word. The examples he gives: by heaven, by God's throne, by the earth, by Jerusalem, and by the hair on your head, are all oaths that the Jews would consider to be non-binding. In other words, Jesus is forbidding hypocritical oaths, but he is not necessarily ruling out all oaths. We have examples of oaths that are acceptable in the Bible. God swore an oath to Abraham by himself (Hebrews 6:13-17). Jesus was under oath at his trial (Matthew 26:63-64). Paul took a vow while at Antioch (Acts 18:18). These oaths were acceptable because the people making the oath intended to keep their promise. Making an oath when you have no intention of keeping your word is the same as lying. As a matter of fact, oaths are not necessary for children of God. Simply stating that you will or will not do something is sufficient to bind you to keep your word.

These laws have not changed under the New Law. A Christian's word is binding because he may not lie (Colossians 3:9, Ephesians 4:25). Taking an oath which is not intended to be fulfilled is wrong (James 5:12). In fact, oaths are unnecessary for Christians. Simply making a statement is sufficient. Anything more means that the people accepting the oath do not trust you.


  1. List three ways we are asked to make oaths in our daily lives.
  2. In your own words, summarize what a Jew in Jesus's time would consider binding and not binding in a promise.
  3. Is it wrong for a Christian to take an oath? Why or why not?
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